As a therapist who specialized working with adoptive and foster families, the most consistent concern was how to help a child with behavioral issues. Parents would be confused and baffled by their child’s behavior. They would feel sad, angry, and scared. They wanted to help their precious kiddos, but they didn’t know what to do. If you find yourself in a similar place right now, you’re not alone.
I remember heading into work one morning to meet a 4-year-old girl for her first counseling session. She entered the room apprehensively with her foster mom—head down, shoulders tense—uncertain of who I was and if I could be trusted. This was not an uncommon experience in my line of work. When children have experienced abuse and neglect, they quickly learn the only person they can trust is themselves. As we sat in my counseling office filled with toys, she just sat there. For weeks, all she could do was climb into my lap and cry—tears soaking my shirt as I cradled her in my arms and told her she was safe, precious, and loved. No words were spoken. Her symptoms were the truth she was not yet able to speak.
The Effect of Trauma
Almost all children in foster care and many who have been adopted have experienced trauma. Often, we think of trauma as something HUGE, like sexual or physical abuse, loss of a loved one, or substance exposure in utero. These experiences certainly are traumatic. However, there are many other types of trauma that impact our kiddos. For example, a birth mother considering adoption may be under high amounts of stress as she makes that decision. Babies in utero experience the mother’s stress, which impacts their neurobiological development. Other common types of trauma include neglect (i.e., basic needs not being met), medical problems, separation from caregivers or siblings, and natural disasters. But one thing is for sure, trauma impairs the brain, makes attachment difficult, and affects behavior.
Where are You At?
Maybe you are parenting a child like the 4-year-old girl I described. Maybe you’re thinking, “Will they ever become a typical, playful, fun 4-year-old again?” Or maybe your child has long temper tantrums or meltdowns, behaves aggressively towards others when they don’t get their way, or lies, cheats, and steals. You might ask questions such as “Will they ever be able to calm down, have healthy social relationships, or understand the difference between right and wrong?” These are difficult questions, and there are no easy answers. I highly recommend parents seek out a trauma-informed mental health professional sooner rather than later.
9 Keys to Help Your Adoptive Child with Behavioral Issues
In my work counseling adoptive and foster families, I noticed there were some tried-and-true methods that seemed to work best for kiddos who experienced trauma. These suggestions won’t make everything better right away, but if implemented successfully, the can help.
- Think survival, not willful disobedience. Often families get frustrated when their children act out. They might label their child’s behavior as “disobedient” or “defiant.” But for many adoptive children, the trauma is running the show. Trauma experiences impact the neurobiology of our brain. Sometimes it’s more a matter of “can’t” than “won’t.” The switch gets flipped and they go into fight, flight, or freeze. The emotional part of the brain (i.e., the amygdala) gets flipped on, and the rest of the brain that is responsible for coping, language, and executive functioning takes a backseat.
- Connection before correction. Many of our children have been harmed through relationship. They have experienced ruptured attachment and trust. When working with a child with behavioral issues, it’s easy to let all your interactions be negative. But you need a foundation of connection before your kiddos will respond to your correction. Think about all your interactions with your child as a “trust bank.” A positive interaction (e.g., play, nurturing touch) is like a deposit. A negative interaction (e.g., correction, punishment) is like a withdrawal. It’s important to make consistent deposits in your child’s trust bank, so that you have enough of a balance in the bank to make a withdrawal (e.g., correction or discipline) when needed.
- Give your child a voice. Many children have felt like their voice does not matter. They don’t trust adults will take care of their needs. They are on their own. It’s important to let children know their voice matters, they are important, and they have worth. You can even give a child a voice when correcting their behavior. For example, you could teach children to ask for a compromise when they want to do one more activity on the playground. Or you could give them a choice between two positive options when they are having a hard time following through on your request. You’re still the boss, but these kinds of strategies give your child the opportunity to exercise their voice by choosing the option that works for them.
- Improve felt safety. Often, I will talk with parents who say “My child knows they’re safe with me.” However, there is a difference between knowing you are safe and feeling you are safe. Imagine you are a soldier fighting overseas. When you hear gunfire, you drop to the ground. This happens on a daily basis. One day you are shot in the hand. You get bandaged up and are sent back home. A few months pass by and you head to Target to buy a jug of milk. As you walk back to your car, you hear a car backfire in the parking lot. What do you think your initial response will be? You drop to the ground. Do you know you are safe in the Target parking lot? Yes, in a certain sense. However, your brain took over and you went into fight/flight/freeze mode. This happens with our kiddos all the time.
- Play. Playfulness disarms fear. As much as a possible, be playful with your children. Try to find at least 10 minutes a day to play their way. Get down on their level. Follow them around and try to see the world as they do. Let them lead. Be patient—don’t be in a rush to get on to your next thing. Try to stay in “play mode” as much as possible.
- Consider sensory issues. Many foster and adoptive children who have experienced trauma have sensory processing difficulties. They may be squirrely, can’t sit still, have a hard time concentrating, and appear to be “all over the place.” Others may get overwhelmed and run and hide somewhere dark, hate the texture of certain foods, or can’t stand the feeling of tags on their clothes. When we don’t meet the sensory needs of our kiddos, this can keep them deregulated. If you suspect your child might have sensory processing issues, it can be helpful to take them to see an Occupational Therapist for an assessment.
- Proactive strategies. Coming up with proactive strategies to help meet the needs of your kiddos can be a game-changer. For example, when your child is calm, help them identify three coping strategies they’d like to use when they feel upset. Rehearse those coping strategies like crazy to help create muscle memory. That way, when they start to become upset, they are more likely to use their coping skill. Additionally, try to “catch the behavior low” and redirect their energy before the behavior gets out of hand. When your child is at a level 10, they are far less likely to use a coping strategy then if they are at a level 3.
- Support is essential. Support—both for you and your kiddos—is essential. I’ve walked alongside so many foster and adoptive parents who felt so alone and isolated in their journey. Instead of compassion and support, many families receive judgement and criticism. This should never be the message our families receive. It’s important to have people around you who “get it,”—meaning they understand that (a) trauma has an important impact on your child, (b) the road to healing can be long and overwhelming at times, and (c) your children are precious. You need people who love and support you and your family just as you are.
- Consider professional support. The impact of trauma on the brain, attachment, and behavior is important to understand and address. If you are feeling overwhelmed with your child’s behavioral issues, make an appointment to see a mental health professional. Some people struggle to get the help they need because of stigma or feeling like a “bad parent.” But emotional and behavioral problems are similar to physical problems. If your child had asthma, you wouldn’t expect them to just “ride it out.” The emotional and behavioral problems that result from trauma are similar. The healing process can take a long time. It’s important to have a trauma-informed therapist walking alongside your child as they heal from their past. It’s also empowering for you as the caregiver as well.
What have you found to be most helpful when working with your child’s behavioral issues? Which of the 9 tips could you try to implement with your child this week?
About the Author
Jenn Ranter Hook, MA, is the Founder and Executive Director of Replanted – a ministry that helps empower the church to support adoptive and foster families by providing emotional, tangible, and informational support. She received her Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology from Wheaton College. She previously worked as a trauma therapist for children and adolescents in foster care. She speaks frequently on topics related to adoption and foster care support, mental health, and trauma. She is the author of Replanted: Faith-based support for foster and adoptive families and lives in Dallas, TX with her husband Josh.
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“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” Isaiah 61:3b